The Pioneers lost only four letterwinners at graduation in June and had 11 coming back, six of them starters. These included three key seniors: southpaw catcher Haley Looney, No. 1 pitcher Caitlyn Minney and veteran third baseman-slugger Melanie Woodard.
But things changed. While Looney has been a fixture all season, the Pioneers have suffered setbacks.
Most serious has been the loss of Woodard with a heart ailment that required a six-hour surgical procedure and might require another. When she has fully recovered, she expects to play at Cleveland State next year.
Minney has faced physical obstacles three times. She suffered a concussion, strep throat and a broken finger on her right (pitching) hand when she was hit by a pitch at the Prebis Memorial Tournament in LaGrange.
A result has been Elyria starts freshman Carly Bachna at third and has two freshmen — Elizabeth Ellis and Bachna — and sophomore Madison Fullmer to fill in for Minney if necessary.
Somehow, despite the need to rework plans for the season and to shuffle players and positions more than once, the Pioneers are back in the Division I Sweet 16 for the ninth straight year.
The third-ranked Pioneers will play a regional semifinal today at
5 p.m. against St. Joseph Academy, which has a won-lost record that has turned heads — not because the Jaguars are world beaters, but because they’re 13-18.
That’s a .419 winning percentage and it might seem anemic compared to Elyria’s 24-5 (.828) record. Don’t be misled. St. Joe has won eight of its last nine games, including 2-1 victories over Magnificat late in the regular season and North Royalton in the district semifinal. North Royalton defeated Elyria by the same score on May 1.
So, two questions about the Pioneers arise: Can they win their next two games and advance to the state Final Four for the eighth time in nine years? And considering the obstacles they’ve faced, what is the secret of their success?
Their seven seniors said it’s because the Pioneers are a team in the real sense of the word. They’re focused and flexible, they create no drama among themselves and they’ve forgotten about their egos.
Another thing: They’re all pulling for Woodard, who dresses for every game even if she’ll never play an inning. It’s been tough for her since she went for testing in the preseason and a problem with her heart was detected.
“They studied the electrical current in my heart and they found out that the right side of my heart was enlarged, causing the bottom chamber to pump really fast,” Woodard said. “There was irritation on the right ventricle and they had to correct that. After they did, everything was fine. My heart was in good shape, but it was still enlarged.”
Woodard said she might have to undergo another procedure to correct a problem with her coronary artery. But, she added, her doctors said it can be delayed.
“It’s been tough not being able to play,” she said. “But I think the girls are doing just fine without me. They’re all there for me. It makes it a lot easier when everyone’s there.”
If it’s true the team is fine without her, it’s because the Pioneers have been flexible and willing to help each other, Looney said.
“Other people stepping in have helped,” she said. “With so many people getting hurt, you realize you have to come together and help the people who are struggling. It’s hard for Mel, but we’re always there helping her and talking to her. And with Cait’s broken finger, I think our defense really stepped up.”
Many players said their success is the product of the team’s family-like chemistry.
“I don’t think I’d call it a secret to our success,” senior shortstop Marie Masters said. “Outside of softball, we all hang out. There’s no drama or anything. We’re all very close to each other like a big family. A weird family, but a family.”
“It’s just a lot of teamwork,” senior outfielder Holly Howser said. “We have a lot of team meetings and talk about things. This year, more than in the past, it feels like a very family team. We’re very united this year and that’s helped a lot, especially with Mel. That was a big blow to us.”
“We’re a family,” Minney said. “We all play as one.”
“We’ve been focused and play as a team,” Bachna said. “We don’t get down on each other. We’re like a big family.”
Others credit maturity as a unit.
“We all have different strengths,” senior outfielder Alexis Roseboro said. “When someone is lacking something, like if our pitching is a little off, our hitting will get us through the game. We’ve really started to click and work as a team.”
“All we do is fight through everything,” senior first baseman Patty Davis said. “At the beginning, we didn’t start off as a team. But as the year went on, we were always there bringing each other up no matter what happened. That’s what’s kept us going.”
Coach Ken Fenik, in his 19th season, said identifying the secret of his team’s success is a tough question.
“I would say injury-wise, this season has been the most challenging for us,” Fenik said. “But the young kids have stepped up. Ellis has been pitching batting practice. I mean Cait (Minney) can’t pitch batting practice. She needs to be fresh.
“Bachna has done an outstanding job at third. I’ve moved her up and down the lineup and she’s had a lot of big hits for us. I’m just really thankful that they’ve jelled. Our turning point was when we went to the Twinsburg tournament (late April) and beat Brecksville and Akron Ellet. That day they really came together.”
- WHAT: Division I regional softball semifinal
- TIME: 5 p.m.
- WHO: Elyria (24-5) vs. St. Joseph (13-18)
- WHERE: Clyde High School
- RADIO: WEOL 930-AM